“Motherhood really changes you,” says Serena Williams. “A lot of women, including myself, can go through ups and downs, and highs and lows, and depressions and happiness.”
Early parenthood is a time when people step up to fulfill a new role as guardian of a vulnerable baby, and at the same time find themselves vulnerable, dependent on those around them for help as they heal. Pregnancy and motherhood contribute to a loss of control over a person’s life, and a fundamental transformation as partners go from individuals to family members. Women often have “unmet needs for support” at that time, as a 2010 Midwifery paper surmised, and are also, in some cases, more vulnerable to partner abuse as a result.
“Whether it's right or wrong, we have to discuss this out publicly,” says Williams.
The tennis champion visited the Bustle Digital Group offices to discuss partner abuse through her partnership on Allstate Foundation Purple Purse, an initiative to support women experiencing financial abuse.
Williams was accompanied by Terera, a financial abuse survivor from Florida who has a 5-year-old son. Terera noticed signs of financial control when she was three months pregnant: her husband insisted she was responsible for all their bills while refusing to get a job himself.
“I actually ended up having my child a month early, and part of that was I believe stress-related,” she tells Romper of developing preeclampsia around the time her husband's three children came to live with them.
After delivering prematurely, Terera, who is featured in a Purple Purse PSA launching Sept. 26, had to take a longer-than-expected maternity leave. With neither party working, she withdrew from her retirement savings to cover their living costs. She later left her husband, who she describes as controlling.
Financial abuse is present in 99% percent of domestic abuse cases, according to Purple Purse. And domestic abuse is prevalent: Three million children witness domestic violence in their homes each year, three women die every day from domestic violence injuries, and it is the number one cause of homelessness, per the Domestic Violence Counts Annual Census Report published by the The National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Williams became involved with Purple Purse a few years ago. "I looked at that number that said 99% of domestic violence has financial abuse involved... and I've said this whenever I talk about it, it is staggering."
In April, she appeared in a PSA on how to know the signs of financial abuse — things like your partner choosing how to spend your pay check, denying you access to your bank account, or maxxing out your credit card. It’s a cause she believes in lending her voice to. “I have a daughter, and you never know what paying it forward can do,” she says.
I think maternity leave is something that really needs to be addressed in this country. — Serena Williams
As a tennis champion with the all-time record of 13 Grand Slam singles titles on hard court, Williams is financially independent, and says she has an “incredible support system” in husband, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. Yet by her own admission, she almost died in childbirth after suffering a pulmonary embolism, and spent the first six weeks of baby Olympia’s life on bedrest.
“I couldn't even walk two weeks later. In fact, I was just out of the hospital,” Williams recalls. ”I think maternity leave is something that really needs to be addressed in this country. Europe has it, most countries have months — six, seven months, eight months, and some countries have even a year.” In contrast, the U.S. has no paid leave at all, and just 12 weeks of protected job leave.
It’s an issue that exacerbates a mother’s vulnerability in the early weeks and months.
When Terera's baby arrived, the decision about what to do about her husband's red-flag behavior was complicated by having dependents — their child and his from a previous relationship.
“Now I'm not only thinking about myself, I'm thinking about my children,” she says. “I need to feed them, I need to house them, I need to clothe them, and I need to keep them safe.”
Even when parents don't acknowledge their situation, children internalize any abuse they witness, as noted by Chicago Policy Review. Allstate Foundation plans to roll out additional programs aimed at educating children about what healthy relationships — and healthy financial relationships — look like.
The bottom line is getting women more support during an often joyful but physically, emotionally, logistically, and financially challenging period in their lives.
I always go to really positive feedback. — Serena Williams
“It's just really important to have a lot of positive feedback when you're going through that, when you're having a baby, because it's difficult — sometimes your body might not look the same,” says Williams.
And the challenges don't let up — Williams recalls a recent flight where now-2-year-old Olympia was a "crazy, wild child," trying to climb the exit ramp. After interrupting Olympia's escape antics, Williams, a Jehovah's Witness, sang a song she learned as a child in her faith about listening. Her instinct is to gently teach her kid about boundaries, and about behavior.
With Olympia, "I always go to really positive feedback," says Williams, who wants her daughter to have confidence above all.
“That goes a really long way.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.